Review: Oh Yes Oh No

Battersea Arts Centre 12th -23rd November (not 17th) 8pm
BSL performance on 19th November

It’s been nearly 24 hours since I’ve seen this show and I am still processing it. ‘Oh Yes Oh No’ is not like anything I’ve seen before. It is incredibly honest and also off the wall.

Writer/performer Louise Orwin tells us that this is ‘not a show about female desire but it is about what it is like to attempt to understand your own experience of desire and sexuality when you live in a culture which tells you day in and day out that sexuality if not for you’.  This is a performance that combines a very light playfulness with discomfort. The audience is an active participant even in its passive state, watching everything unfold.

Upon entering the space there is humming, throbbing kind of industrial soundtrack. Louise is sat on a chair dressed in black, her hair long and white  – a life sized doll. And then you see the exact same set up but in miniature with a Barbie doll sat on a chair. There is a beautiful kitsch aesthetic to Kat Heath’s set design, which I loved.

Louise then introduces herself, speaking through a microphone, which distorts her voice into something plastic and robotic. Initially I found this a little jarring, as it was all I could focus on. However I did quickly get used to it and it is an incredibly effective use of sound, particularly in how it very quickly creates this idea of fantasy and play.

We are told this is a fantasy space. An audience member becomes part of the action and is representing all of us. There is a particular excitement that comes into a room with this kind of interaction and I love the idea how depending on the person, this could greatly shift the energy in the room.

There is also a large screen at the back onto which text is shown throughout the show. The way this is utilized throughout the play gave me a sense of a kind of dystopian karaoke (which is a great thing!) and also conjured up a sort of J.G Ballard mood.

Oh Yes Oh No walks a line throughout of fun and games but with the threat of danger, always the threat of danger and manages this intricate balance with great consideration but also utter rawness.  This is a piece of theatre that cannot fail to move its audience in some way though do please note it may be very triggering for some people.

The sound design by Alicia Turner was bold and effective. The use of voiceovers was really powerful and proved to me that when done right, a voiceover can really feel like a physical presence in a space.

Finally, Louise Orwin. Wow.

This is a thought-provoking piece of theatre at its boldest. 

© Sarah Browne 2019

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Image © Alex Brenner 2019

Review: Aladdin and The Feast of Wonders

The Vaults, London
Until 15th Jan 2020

“Ladies, Gentlemen and the elite that transcend the gender binary”… if there’s an experience worth having this winter, Aladdin and The Feast of Wonders is IT! It’s crude, it’s bawdy, it’s salacious – it’s completely and utterly belly-shaking hilarious. Where to start? I suppose at the beginning, we are welcomed in to Widow Hankey’s Lauderette: White Washing, where we learn that the she is struggling for cash, and also that Princess Jizzmine only has until midnight to find a suitor or risk losing the crown – the race is on!  It’s got all the trimmings of a traditional panto, with a large side-helping of delicious noodles – or Mama’s Noods as they are known in these parts. Before too long we are whisked from the laundrette and on to a grand banqueting hall, where the Feast of Wonders commences. What made this immersive dining experience stand out, was that as much attention has been paid to the delightful menu, as it has to the set, as it has to the performance, offering a spectacular treat for all. 

The humour is filthier than some of the laundry in Widow Hankey’s launderette – however, unlike traditional pantos, they avoid humour targeting minority groups and cis-het inuendo, which can often leave queer audiences standing on the sidelines. The Feast of Wonders is delightfully free of gender binaries and norms and heterocentric language, which for me was what made this panto one of the best in a long time. As well as this, the Vaults approach to zero-tolerance of cultural appropriation in terms of dress code feels like an incredibly hopeful and positive step forward regarding the damage and oppression pantomime in the UK has historically caused. 

The talented cast are clearly having a whale of a time performing the show, which results in us having a whale of a time watching. Angelo Paragoso plays the entirely lovable Villain Jaclose, whilst Janina Smith brings cheeky, chappy Aladdin to life and succeeded in some hilarious audience banter while we partook of the feast. 

The food is sumptuous, a slick operation run by Pop Co, means each course is served swiftly between scenes. Vegans – you’ll be happy the jackfruit features heavily in this feast, in fact they cater for all diets, as long as you let them know in advance! The food is themed around the story and each course brought together a blend of delicious flavours; Princess Jizzmine’s Milk was almost a little too graphic for me to stomach, but so delicious in actuality, I more than managed!

The ending of the show is unexpected, touching and a complete breath of fresh air, it’s riotous and triumphant .  One slightly tipsy punter tried to incorporate herself in to the final scene, and was gently led to the side by Window Hankey – this was a sure sign of success for the production, I too thought how much I desperately wanted to be a part of the fun they were having. Fortunately for that over-zealous punter, everyone is invited on stage at the end and there is the chance for a dance, as well as to meet the characters. 

I could not recommend this experience more, and with tickets costing from £40 (standard) to £75 (for VIP) it’s an absolute steal – you’d be ridiculous not to to get yourself down to the Vaults as soon as you possibly can!

© Amie Taylor

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Review: We Dig

Ovalhouse, London.
This production ran from 5th – 19th October 2019

I imagine, many of us as children found there was nothing quite like digging a hole, whether that was in the sand at the beach, or somewhere in the back garden, away from the flower bed, or else your Mum wouldn’t be best pleased. Add to that the joy and excitement of your friends being with you. The anticipation of digging a really big hole. How far down could you go before uncovering something? The stories you would share in the process, the plans, the hopes, the dreams…

Emma Frankland and company have been given a unique opportunity to do just that at the Ovalhouse. As Emma casually addresses the audience at the start of We Dig, we find out the building is soon, sadly, to be demolished. To be replaced like so much has been in the Vauxhall and Oval area in recent years. The audience can already see that the stage area has been ripped up and all that is left is a fenced-off crater, into which Emma climbs back to dig away with a small plastic spade. What she needs are some friends to make it bigger and they arrive, literally breaking through a brick wall in order to get into the space, with some shovels and picks. What ensues over the next seventy minutes is a carefully choreographed and thoughtful build up to the messages this production is trying to portray.

This is a story about friendships, sometimes eclectic, sometimes challenging and what it is that binds them together. Each person has their own individual story to tell, which develop throughout the play. We hear about their joys, challenges and setbacks in different parts of the world. At the same time, each member of the cast seem to be trying to physically deal with something on the stage, whether that is breaking through a large slab of concrete, stopping a flowing leak from the ceiling, trying to grow crops, to stopping a fire. Throughout the hole gets bigger and objects unearthed.

Peppered throughout the play Emma does what you expect, providing strong eloquent monologues, even whilst operating a pneumatic drill. Aptly, whilst the play was running, the Extinction Rebellion protests were happening, and Emma talks about the use of natural resources, always taking and not having anything left for future generations. This is a useful analogy to what is going on onstage, as we see each character struggle with the individual resources they have as they try to deal with the physical challenges. By the end, we see them come together in collaboration using the leak for example to put out the fire, or to water the crops planted and celebrate what they have achieved, the obstacles overcome, new resources found or created and what brings them together.

You are not going to see a performance quite like this. It has a rare setting and the boundaries of what you expect to see in a physical theatre space are pushed beyond conventional limits. Expect Emma’s unique style but intermingled with those of her friends on stage, giving the play an even greater perspective. There is so much you will take home with you. For me the most poignant was the burning of negative remarks and comments, disappearing, magician like into thin air. This is a Trans Femme story and perspective on issues that can affect many of us. I have held back on saying that, because, as said in the performance, that shouldn’t be the main theme. It just happens that all the characters on stage are and their stories reflect that. What we take from this is up to us.

© Grace Johnstone 2019

This performance has now closed. Follow @elbfrankland on Twitter for information and updates on future work by Emma.

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© Image Rosie Powell

Review: Queer Week

The Drayton Arms Theatre, London
This Production has now closed
CW: Suicide and Mental Health

As is often the case in theatre, we are observers and listeners, not actively participating in a series of events unfolding rapidly in front of us – we sit down in the dark to watch stories and listen to the lives of those far different to our own. Some theatregoers prefer this separation between the performer and the audience, while others delight in the rambunctious banter that can occur between those on the stage and those in the seats.

The latter of these is what I experienced at the closing night of Queer Week 2019 at The Drayton Arms theatre space, an intimate and modest venue on Old Brompton Road in South Kensington. Throughout the evening we were exposed to a myriad of performances – namely music by the entrancingly husky- voiced Jakob Noah, the deliciously witty dragged-up stand-up from Steve (single-use name, á la Cher) and an important verbatim musical about mental illness amongst queer people, fittingly titled Here, Queer and Mentally Unclear.

I immediately noticed the sense of community within the room that night – Jakob Noah’s opening numbers were met with enthusiastic applause. Steve’s cabaret act was as camp as they come, with a healthy spoonful of sarcasm. He performed to his mother, sister and husband, who cheered him on from the audience that roared with laughter at his jokes. And not just jokes – we listened intently when he addressed the conversation within and without the queer community around trans people and their rights. It was a room brimming with support and acceptance and a familiarity that is truly intangible and often not visible in theatrical spaces.

The verbatim musical Here, Queer and Mentally Unclear is a telling of the struggles and successes of queer people, with specific aspects of these stories being encapsulated in song. I could only salute the bravery of the performers at their honesty and courage in reciting words that have clear ties to their own personal journeys – and when they sang through their tears about gender dysphoria, depression, bipolar disorder and suicide, it made the reality of mental illness amongst queer people sink in.

While the show is stripped back and not for a patron of more expensive, showier productions, its value lies in its incredible sense of community and the electrical energy it sends throughout the room. Representing queer people is not something we can do too much of, and to have a week celebrating queer work and artists outside of what seems like our designated pride season is a positive change and this writer hopes that we will continue to have many more queer weeks ahead of us!

© Killian Glynn

For full listings of shows that took place in Queer Week – visit the Drayton Arms website.

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Review: Out of Sorts

Theatre 503, London, until 2nd November

Out of Sorts examines what it means to grow up as a first-generation British Muslim, balancing and straddling the two worlds; of that which is at home and that of the outside world. We see the events of a weekend unravel so that Zara, our protagonist is unable to keep the two worlds apart any longer.

The writing reflects the complexities of whiteness, privilege and racism in a way I haven’t yet seen touched on in fringe theatre. Whilst some of the dialogue is flawed, the commitment in writing beyond siloes without perpetuating stereotypes results in exciting and necessary theatre.

Myrian Acharki gives a stand out performance, she brought an authenticity and truth to the character of Zara’s mother, Layla. The penultimate scene between Layla and Zara is executed skillfully and with heart as we explore what depression, though never named as such, looks like in its many manifestations. For the first time we see a rage and frustration from Layla that she is only seen and defined as an immigrant and speaks to just how limiting this lens that is put upon her, really is. A particularly memorable line that shot straight to the heart, ‘Everybody has a private thought, no matter who they are’. The affection and warmth of Layla’s unconditional love is touching and beautifully packed in to this scene.

Claudius Peters gives a memorable performance as Anthony – every line delivered with a considered and gentle truth. The second act delves further into internalised oppression, with Anthony telling Zara “You have self hatred running through you and that is the worst poison of all”- a line that really hits home thanks to Peters’ powerful delivery.

The script is careful to present the complex and differing ways in which prejudice is experienced for different people depending on skin colour, nationality and even class in a way that I have not previously experienced onstage.

Oznue Cifci gives an impressive performance as Fatima, Zara’s younger sister. The character’s poetry and music teases us throughout the play, before eventually the audience is treated to Cifci’s beautiful singing voice.

The play dances on themes of depression and eating disorders with a light touch that allows room for the exploration of identity. Improvements could perhaps be made by adding detail in design and direction, however, Out of Sorts is a beautiful portrayal of what happens when we don’t talk about the issues we face and how that manifests. It made me think, cry and I’m certainly going to be on the lookout for what Danusia does next.

© Roann McCloskey 2019

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Image © Helen Murray

Review: Femme Fatale

Omnibus Theatre until 27th Oct 2019

Femme Fatale headlines Perception Festival at Omnibus’ Theatre; this is the 5th year for this festival which aims to bring some of the lesser heard voices to Omnibus stages; including female identifying and queer voices. 

In this new play by Polly Wiseman, we bear witness to an imagined meeting between Nico (Polly Wiseman), of Velvet Underground and Valerie Solanas (Sophie Olivia) –  prolific feminist, lesbian, and writer of The S.C.U.M Manifesto.  It’s an interesting premise for a story and was simultaneously humorous and thought provoking. Included were moments of Valerie directly addressing the audience as though trying to recruit us for her cause – which added lightness to the piece. I wonder if the real Valerie may have been a bit harsher towards her audiences; Olivia played her acerbity with a twinkle in the eye and in moments with a childlike vulnerability, which couldn’t help but win you over – how delightful to see this queer female voice onstage; I don’t mind if she was quite different from the real Valerie. Nico is the contrast, cold, and pessimistic – Wiseman is enjoyable to watch in this role and gives a convincingly good portrayal.  There was something quite captivating about this piece and the stories of these two women. The journeys they had traveled up to this collision and their experiences of the world, set them apart in their feminist values – but the moments where they meet; where they bridge the gap, are a real gift for the audience. At it’s heart, Femme Fatale is a blaring call to action, a fervent reminder to keep the momentum of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements going.

I must admit, I have grappled with feminism over the past couple of years, as I’ve frequently found that my feminism (especially as a queer woman) doesn’t always align with that of my peers and counter parts; large swathes of feminism have become more obviously exclusionary, which has often made me want to step-away; from the movement not the cause.  So it feels important to commend Polly Wiseman’s new play, Femme Fatale for reigniting a spark within me, and reminding me the importance of knowing our feminist roots. I was aware of the SCUM Manifesto, but knew very little of its creator Valerie Solanas and for all the fiction in this piece, it’s also hugely educational. In joining the dots between feminism across the past 40 years, it left me wanting to go home and do my own further research in to both of these characters and the feminist movement during the 60s and beyond. 

Another highlight of the evening for me was being invited to add my own words to a new feminist manifesto at the end of the play, it brought the piece full circle and the installation of audience voices in the space was a nice touch with an impact, and being invited to remain in the theatre following the show, reflect on my thoughts and add to the manifesto felt meaningful.  

Back in the bar after the show, I found myself immediately immersed in a deep discussion around contemporary feminism, with friends old and new, a passionate and personal conversation fuelled by the events we’d just witnessed, and if that’s not theatre doing the very best job it can, then I’m not sure what is. 

Femme Fatale runs at Omnibus Theatre until 27th October as part of Perception Festival, which also has a number of other shows on over the course of the month.

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© Amie Taylor 2019

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Review: Bareback

2nd Oct – Hen and Chickens London
This show has now closed

The expression “there’s a lot going on here” couldn’t have been more true of Horseplay’s latest show, Bareback. From an aspiring gay, Irish astronaut to the comic capers of Cori & Gina via the latest hit TV show Hottie Island where hot men duke it out to be the least emotionally expressive and empathetic, performers-singers-actors-comedians Derek Mitchell and Kathy Maniura take us on am absurd roller coaster ride with added jet packs.

In essence, the show is all about sex. The things no one tells us, the things we grow up believing, the things we’re shamed for and a whole host of other unhelpful narratives about what we should do, how long for and who with. Maniura and Mitchell are the tour guides of this wild and witty journey and it’s a delight to see them scroll through a number of great comic characters. Whilst I particularly liked Cori & Gina (aka anus and vagina), there was also a brief guest appearance from Timothée Chalamet and The Actress, destined to tread the boards (the Wife of Bath and the artisanal sex toy saleswoman were also fab but they didn’t get to hang around for very long). Oh, and most of the show takes place in the afterlife. If you’re struggling to put all the pieces together it’s best to just go and see it. I laughed a lot and felt in good hands for the hour, even when I was asked to hold a wooden dildo.

I think there was a poignant, nuanced take-home message somewhere underneath the absurdity but what it was I wasn’t quite sure. Personally, I didn’t need a moral and felt it might have got a bit lost under the comic capers. While I liked Cori’s heartfelt monologue on the pride and shame of bare backing it came as a bit of a surprise and seemed a bit incongruous in the light of what had gone before. Nevertheless, Maniura and Mitchell are hilarious, multi-talented folks and I can’t wait to see what they do next.

© Robert Holtom 2019

Follow Horseplay on Facebook for details of future shows.

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Image © Riccardo Salamanna